John Clay: Derby picture clears up as Dance With Fate steps out

Dance with Fate (left) with Corey Nakatani aboard wins the 90th Running of The Toyota Blue Grass (Grade 1) at Keeneland on April 12, 2014 in Lexington, Ky.  Photo by Mark Mahan
Dance with Fate (left) with Corey Nakatani aboard wins the 90th Running of The Toyota Blue Grass (Grade 1) at Keeneland on April 12, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Mahan Herald-Leader

This year is one of those rare years when three weeks out we seem to have identified a clear-cut Kentucky Derby favorite.

His name is California Chrome, a 3-year-old on a devastating four-race win streak who figures to receive the largest slice of the spotlight once he arrives in Louisville five days before the May 3 run for the roses.

Neither of Saturday's last-chance Derby preps did anything to threaten that notion.

Dance With Fate, winner of Keeneland's final Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on Polytrack, is probably not even Churchill Downs bound.

"I just don't like the idea of coming back that quick," trainer Peter Eurton said after the Blue Grass. "I really don't."

At Oaklawn, a 41-1 shot trained by Todd Pletcher named Danza won the Arkansas Derby as 9-5 morning line favorite Tapiture finished off the board in fourth.

To be sure, other nice contenders exist, including Wicked Strong, surprise winner of the Wood Memorial. His father, Hard Spun, ran second in the 2007 Derby. Plus, Wicked Strong posted an impressive 104 Beyer Speed Figure in the Wood.

Red flag: Wicked Strong owns just two wins in six starts.

There is Constitution, late-running winner of the Florida Derby. Trained by Pletcher and co-owned by Win-Star Farms, Constitution is backed by the same team that won the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Super Saver.

Red flag: Constitution did not race as a 2-year-old. The last horse to not race at 2 and win the world's biggest race at 3 was Apollo in 1882.

There's Vicar's in Trouble, the Louisiana Derby winner who is second in the Kentucky Derby point standings and owned by Nicholasville's Ken and Sarah Ramsey.

Red flag: The last Louisiana Derby winner to win the Kentucky Derby was Grindstone in 1996.

California Chrome's potential red flag is that he is a California-bred. Only three Cal-breds have won the Derby. The last was Decidedly in 1962.

There is overwhelming evidence to suggest he can overcome both his roots and history, however.

California Chrome won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby by an impressive 5¼ lengths after taking the Grade II San Felipe by 7¼. His combined winning margins in his last four races is 241/2 lengths.

He posted the fourth fastest time in the 77th Santa Anita Derby, which led to an eye-popping 107 Beyer Figure. Only Lucky Debonair (1965), Sham (1973) and Indian Charlie (1998) ran faster times.

Plus, California Chrome boasts one of those Kentucky Derby stories the general public will love in 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman, who at age 18 was the morning exercise rider for 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps.

Sherman has never trained a horse like California Chrome. And after Hollywood Park was shuttered on Dec. 22 last year, he no longer had a place to train him, either. With the help of son Alan, Sherman moved the horse to Los Alamitos, Calif., a quarter-horse track expanding to thoroughbreds.

The winner of Saturday's Blue Grass is also based in California, where Dance With Fate ran second in the El Camino Real last time out. In fact, Dance With Fate's Keeneland win makes the California crop look even better.

The 56-year-old Eurton is from La Verne and has been around the track a few times. He has seen California Chrome.

"He's pretty special," Eurton said. "He looks fabulous. He's a big, strong horse. He'll probably handle the heavier surface (at Churchill Downs)."

Just two years ago, I'll Have Another executed a Santa Anita Derby/Kentucky Derby sweep. Trainer Doug O'Neill's star was hardly the favorite in Louisville, however, leaving the gate at 15-1.

Safe to say, come Derby day, there will be no such price on California Chrome.

This year's favorite is crystal-clear.

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